In Unknown Soldiers, Garland couples extensive use of primary source material and impeccable research to convey the terror, boredom, serendipity, stupidity, comradery and mud that the “dogface” soldier faced in the European campaign of World War II. Using photos, interviews and notes from his field journal (unauthorized, of course) the reader is gradually introduced to the author’s platoon members of the Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division. Accounts of fighting in Italy at Anzio and the Winter Line are particularly harrowing. The incessant pounding from German 88mm cannons, the terror of attacking Panzer divisions, and the swift deadliness of machine gun fire goes on for day after day after wet, soggy, mud filled day. By the end of the book one can easily relate to the platoonmate of the author who describes being back in the States after the war and walking down a street when “a load o’coal went down one of those sidewalk chutes, WHOOSH like a shell comin’ in, and I picked myself up out of the gutter but didn’t feel too bad because down the street about twenty-five yards another guy was doin’ the same thing, and we looked at each other. He’d been there.”
Not only does the book look at the war through a soldier’s eyes, but it also includes third-party accounts that describe the how the soldiers appear to the eyes of others. Included is a memoir of a French Resistance fighter who actually joins the platoon when it reaches France. It also includes an interview with a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp who relates the liberation of the camp by soldiers of the 157th.
Personally, what I will always remember is the insertion of the heartbreaking poem, “Vale” (Latin for “farewell”) written by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Viereck in tribute to his brother George who was a member of the author’s platoon and who was killed by mortar fire on the Anzio beachhead, near Rome. The poet relates how he was standing among Roman tombstones in Carthage when he learned of his brother’s death. The term “Vale” was often inscribed on Roman tombstones and is used in the poem for the two wars to “mix their dead”. Incidentally, if you look at the book jacket, two of the three men pictured did not come home. “frater, ave atque vale“